The vision of a massive nationwide superhighway of high voltage transmission lines may have died last week in the Supreme Court. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  

Overshadowed by the (terrible) Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court essentially upheld the right of states to block high voltage transmission wires. At issue was the right of the federal government to override a state’s veto of a new transmission line. Electric utilities had appealed the Piedmont Environmental Council’s victory in a lower court decision, but the high court’s refusal to review means that states will retain the authority to refuse new high voltage transmission lines.   

In recent months, there has been significant pressure to create a nationwide transmission “superhighway” for renewable energy, with distinct onramps for new wind and solar in the Midwest and Southwest and offramps delivering that power to the West and East. Rapid construction of this system requires both federal preemption of state review of transmission planning and new formulas for cost-sharing between onramp and offramp states.  

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The SCOTUS decision means we have to find another way. And this isn’t a bad thing.

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First, high voltage lines are incredibly unpopular. No one wants them in their community. NIMBY activists — many of them environmentalists — can block (will block) their construction in countless states for decades. What is equally unpopular is seizing land to build them. Finally, the beltway vision of importing energy to every state isn’t all that popular out here in the states.

States prefer sharing the benefits renewable energy development to sharing the costs of a transmission superhighway (especially if they’re only paying for “offramps”). In May 2009, the governors of ten East Coast states wrote to senior members of Congress to protest proposals that “could jeopardize our states’ efforts to develop wind resources…”  They added, “it is well accepted that local generation is more responsive and effective in solving reliability issues than long distance energy inputs.”  In November 2009, five Western governors joined the fray, writing an opposition letter to U.S. Senate leaders who were proposing greater federal preemption of state authority. “Region wide cost allocation proposals [for high voltage transmission] may hinder our states’ efforts to develop renewable resources and establish federal jurisdiction in an area traditionally handled by states,” the governors said.  

Finally, federal preemption for this transmission superhighway would — ironically — undermine efficient energy planning. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operators have explicitly said that they will not and do not review alternatives to transmission. States, however, are often required to examine alternatives, from robust energy efficiency to local renewable energy generation on the distribution grid.  

Federal preemption of transmission planning — politically unpopular and costly — would have been a serious detour from the popular and effective course toward clean energy being set at the state level.

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Instead, we need to embrace the vision of local clean energy building local economies.

For example, ACEEE has detailed the stunning potential to reduce states’ fossil fuel footprint with energy efficiency. Virginia could get 19 percent of its 2025 electric load from energy efficiency savings; Ohio and Pennsylvania could meet 33 percent of their 2025 load with efficiency; initial results from smart grid pilots by IBM in Fayetteville, N.C., found energy consumption reductions of 15 percent.  

States can build up their own renewable energy generation — and their economies — as they reduce their load.  A perfect example: Minnesota’s utilities performed a state-mandated study of the state’s grid and found hundreds of megawatts of capacity for distributed renewables with minimal investments in new transmission. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently released a report I co-authored, “Energy Self-Reliant States,” that vividly illustrates how states can tap the energy and economic benefits of their own renewable energy resources. The report finds that two-thirds of states could be totally self-reliant on in-state renewable energy resources with sufficient storage.  

Energy advocates share the goal of transitioning quickly to a clean energy future. The Supreme Court has meant that future is driven by local energy. And that is a good thing.